I was recently watching a lecture by archaeologist and historian Ian Morris about the historical norms of inequality throughout the ages, among other things. Morris, who is a professor at Stanford, is always interesting because he takes a very long view of history.
In the lecture, he identifies "three big patterns" as to how human values surrounding equality have evolved:
For foraging societies (a/k/a "hunter-gatherers"), he notes that there was a relatively low degree of wealth inequality and that equality was generally highly valued. Using the GINI coefficient -- a measure of wealth inequality that goes from zero (perfect equality) to one (perfect inequality) -- these societies average around 0.25.
For the farming or agricultural societies that have existed for most of recorded history starting about 10,000 years ago, he notes that there was a relatively high degree of wealth inequality and that this was taken to be "right and natural" because the societies were hierarchical and required a high degree of organization to function properly. These societies have GINI coefficients that average 0.48.
For fossil-fuel or industrial societies (last 200 years), he notes that the scale of wealth inequality is somewhere in between. These societies have GINI coefficients averaging 0.30, and are pretty tightly grouped in a band that goes from 0.25 to 0.35. He points out that societies like the U.K. and U.S. had reached a low of around 0.25 in the 1970s, experienced economic turmoil, and responded by electing leadership and policies that led to an increase in inequality to where it is today, about 0.35. Now, after the economic turmoil of the early 2000s, the pendulum seems to be reversing course with the rise in popularity of candidates like Trump and Sanders (U.S.) and Jeremy Corbyn (U.K.).
He attributes these differences in part to the different ways societies extract energy from the world around them. He posits that foragers capture very little energy from the world around them and must subsist in small groups or bands, resulting in low population density with difficulties in accumulating material wealth. Farming societies capture much more energy from the surrounding world and scale up with lots of hard work and coordination, resulting in hierarchies with god-like kings on the top and slaves or serfs on the bottom. These societies require coercive solutions to function at large scales.
Fossil fuel or industrial societies can easily capture huge amounts of energy and produce goods and services at a much higher output with a lot less human labor. In these societies, two models developed -- one with central control (totalitarian) and one with dispersed control (liberal). Both involved aspects of both equality (particularly social and gender) and inequality (particularly wealth). However, the former failed economically in the last century, leaving the latter as the dominant form of developed societies today.
These ideas actually build in some ways on one of Morris's broader recent works, "War: What is it Good For?: Conflict and Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots." In that work he posits four basic claims about official violence (wars) and history:
First, Morris asserts that societies have been built up by a series of wars, where larger societies swallow up smaller ones, starting with hunter-gatherer conflicts, moving to agrarian kingdoms and finally to modern states. Paradoxically, over the course of this 10,000-plus year history, the risk of violent death has actually fallen from a 10-20% rate per capita in hunter-gatherer societies to the 1-2% rate of the 20th century, even accounting for all of the wars that were fought. In effect, larger, more organized societies have used occasional official punishment, and its constant threat, to suppress the internal violence that was more prevalent and unchecked in smaller societies. Morris notes that this is a paradox that war reduces overall violence.
Second, Morris asserts that violence, particularly through war, is the only consistent way that humanity has found to organize large societies of millions of people to reduce overall individual violent tendencies. (In other places, he recognizes that non-violent movements have also had some success, but only within the recent past century or two.) In effect, the data that Hobbes did not have when he wrote Leviathan has shown his that thesis to be essentially correct historically.
Third, Morris observes that as societies have become safer, they also have become wealthier. This is in large part because the are more stable and allow for wealth accumulation.
Fourth, Morris contends that war has in effect been putting itself out of business, in that certain kinds of war, notably over territory, have been disappearing since World War II. Weapons are now potentially so destructive that no one wants to use them on a large scale.
Morris then takes a stab at the reasons the foregoing four data points are true, and points in particular to what we've learned about the biology of violence in the past 50 years -- namely that violence is an evolved trait shared by most species. However, each species uses it differently and has a different equilibrium for it. Effectively, if an animal is either too violent or not violent enough for its species it will not be able to pass on its genes.
For humans, this naturally evolved to reflect the 10-20% death rate from inter-human violence in prehistoric man. The difference for humans was that our brains allowed us to develop cultures that also evolved, eventually reducing deaths by violence by approximately 90%. We did not change biologically, but created artificial social environments that changed our overall behavior.
Morris concludes by contending that the next 40 years might be very dangerous. He notes that the 19th Century was marked by relatively few large-scale conflicts because Britain effectively dominated world commerce and development such that no other power would challenge it directly. As other powers, encouraged by trade with Britain, grew, eventually Germany felt it was worthwhile and the result was World War I. Morris believes that we may be in a similar state today with the U.S. fulfilling the dominant role. However, that role is unlikely to last forever and there could be another large war on the horizon. (Cheery, isn't he?)
Professor Morris's lecture summary on his book is here:
One can certainly take issue with any number of Morris's contentions and conclusions, and many people have. For instance, some researchers have studied nonviolent movements and found that from 1900-2006, nonviolent campaigns have been twice as successful in changing or overthrowing governments than violent ones, and this trend has been increasing since the 1950s. That research is presented in this talk.
Morris's response to these arguments has typically been along the line that this could not have happened until a Hobbsian Leviathan regime "paved the way." In his book he asserts that "the nonviolent messages of Confucianism, Buddhism, Stoicism and Christianity won mass followings only after the wars of conquest that created the Han, Mauryan and Roman Empires had passed their peaks[.]"
I do not expect to resolve these issues, as I am neither an historian nor an archaeologist. But some additional insights into these historical patterns may be gained by looking at these issues through the Lenses of Wisdom.
Looking first through the Fractal Lens, we see something so obvious that Morris appears to have missed it. As originally observed by Vilfredo Pareto in the early 1900s, human societies naturally involve a power-law type wealth distribution. Pareto described it generally as 80% of the wealth being owned by 20% of the people in the societies he surveyed.
Morris confirms that this has in fact been the state of human societies going all the way back to the beginning. And while some kinds of societies have been more unequal than others, all three forms that he discusses -- foraging, farming and industrial -- involve the same shaped curve of wealth distribution. Only the steepness of the curve varies.
Morris's description of historically alternating peaceful and violent periods is also consistent with complexity theory and the sand-pile model of history. After long periods of dominance by a particular power, an area (or the whole world) can erupt in what seems like earthquakes or volcanoes of violence. The outward stability acts as a kind of mirage, hiding fractures and fault lines that grow like piles of sand until a grain of sand suddenly collapses the whole pile or a good part of it.
In Mark Buchanan's Ubiquity, which is all about complexity theory, he notes that World War I was just such an event. More recently, on a smaller scale, we have seen the collapse of a number of governments in the Middle East in a similar volcanic way.
Morris recognizes that this remains a distinct possibility in the future -- on a larger scale. My own personal observation of a "pattern", if there is one, is of about 100-plus years of relative peace and small conflicts followed by roughly 30 years of nearly all-out conflicts, at least in the West. The last three major conflict periods were the two World Wars, the Napoleonic wars and the Thirty Years War. On that grossly guesstimated "pattern", sometime after 2045 is likely to be the next period of large conflicts.
But we need to remember that the Fractal Lens also reminds us that it is folly to try to predict when the next big earthquake will occur and what it will look like. And it does not shed any light how the appearance of non-violent movements might alter outcomes, like the modern buildings that are constructed to sway during earthquakes so that they do not collapse.
Looking through the Mimetic Lens, we see a peculiar relationship: the Mimetic Theory of Rene Girard about the role of violence in archaic sacred societies is to Morris's theory of war almost as microeconomics is to macroeconomics. What is also peculiar about this is that while both Girard and Morris were both at Stanford at the same time, they were in different ivory towers and thus Morris never read Girard's work. In effect, they arrived at the same places from different analytical directions.
One of the weaknesses in Morris’s theories is that while he explains conflict between societies quite well, he fails to explain the origins of it within a society and how it is controlled such that a large society can be built up at all. Mimetic theory fills this gap. As discussed in more detail on the Mimetic Lens page, mimetic theory shows that violence is a result of the natural tendency of human beings to copy one another, then copy one another’s desires, the come into conflict with one another.
Complex societies could only be build up by “solving” these conflicts. The principal solution was the creation of religions that allowed societies to blame the conflicts on scapegoats and unified them around a central authority that would punish or exorcise the scapegoats through sacrifice and related rituals, thereby restoring and maintaining order. As the more successful of these ancient societies grew, they became more hierarchical and had more rules. Rulers were often revered as gods.
This mimetic micro-description of how ancient societies were built is consistent with Morris’s observations as to their macro-properties, as well as Morris’ contention in the video that each species, including humans, uses violence as an evolutionary mechanism and tends towards a kind of equilibria of violence. This was the case in hunter-gatherer societies. In that regard, Morris observes that despite larger societies having more large scale conflicts, individual violence in smaller, hunter-gatherer societies was actually greater in that the possibility of being murdered was many times higher than in agricultural ones. Only the creation of hierarchies and rules reduced the individual probability of death from the immediate acts of another individual. The power and right to kill, in effect, was taken from the individual and ensconced with the central authority – the ruler(s) or state, who would mete it out somewhat less often, but usually for more targeted impact in maintaining societal order and economic production.
The combination of agricultural technologies and the ability to reduce random violence in larger groups of people led agricultural societies to be more successful overall and to supplant most of the hunter-gatherer societies in most parts of the world over time. This also explains the prominence of organized religions in such societies. The scapegoating mechanism was integral to their success.
Morris’s description of the transition from agricultural to modern industrial societies and consequences is also consistent with Girard’s views. Morris observes that the ability of industrial societies to harness more energy and produce more goods and services with less effort served to increase egalitarianism from that of agricultural societies. This in turn has loosened the need of societies to impose hierarchical rules of inequality to maintain the economic livelihood of society. Thus, Morris elsewhere observes that while all complex agricultural societies involved some form of slavery or serfdom for large portions of the population, those institutions have disappeared in modern industrial societies and have become anathema due to their associations with inequality, exclusion and the general idea that accepting one’s unequal place in society was necessary for society to function.
As discussed in the posts about WEIRD societies, Girard’s view on the spread of egalitarian norms in modern industrial societies (human rights) corresponds with the loosening of hierarchical norms in those societies and the emphasis on maintaining social order. Those who were once victimized by hierarchical agricultural society in the name of order are now being upheld in the name of the new egalitarian order:
“Girard also brings to light the extraordinary paradox of Western culture, which reveals, in the very moment at which it seems to be freed from religious and confessional constraints by means of a ‘rationalist expulsion of the religious’, its deeply Judaeo-Christian roots. The entire ideological perspective of contemporary culture is, in fact, built on a victimological principle, i.e. on the centrality of victims in all our ethical concerns: the victims of the Shoah, the victims of capitalism, the victims of social injustice, of war, of political persecution, of ecological disasters, of racial, sexual, religious discrimination. And no matter how controversial it may sound, Girard claims that it has been Christianity that has been the foremost proponent of putting the innocent victim at the centre of our ethical and imaginative concern. Therefore, the ultimate unattainable goal of Nietzsche’s intellectual project, namely, the desire to free the West from its obsession with victims is, according to Girard, one of the proofs of the ineluctability of Christian ethics in Western culture. For this, as we all know, is based on inclusion rather than on exclusion, on universalism.”
In this manner, the historically relatively recent success of non-violent movements is also explained in part by Girard. In fact, in contrast to agricultural societal norms that involved scapegoating various victims in the name of sacrificial violence and good order, modern culture upholds non-violent victimhood as one of its highest values:
“This fact makes the phenomenon much more paradoxical, because it is much easier to recover biblical principles if one doesn’t know they are biblical. On this score, modern nihilism shows its weak side. When our intellectuals, after the Second World War, and later with the collapse of the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe, thought we were through with absolutes, they were simply wrong. Because the victimary principle or the defence of victims has become holy: it is the absolute. One will never see anyone attacking it. They do not even have to mention it. So we can say we are all believers in the innocence of the victims, which is at the core of Christianity. Nietzsche aimed at a deconstruction of Christianity, which he understood correctly as the defence of victims. Our modern nihilists want to deconstruct everything, except the defence of victims which they espouse. Thus, they are a very special kind of nihilist: they deny everything but the defence of the victim. In other words, they could not be more Christian than they are, against Christianity of course, but their self-contradiction is becoming obvious. One has only to see the acrobatic intellectualism of postmodern thinkers who try to pave the way to the idea of historical relativism and to save the historical truth of the Holocaust.
Of course, very often Christian principles are prevailing in a caricaturist form, whereby the defence of the victim entails new persecutions! One can persecute today only in the name of being against persecution. One can only persecute persecutors. You have to prove that your opponent is a persecutor in order to justify your own desire to persecute.”
In a separate work from 2007, Achever Clausewitz (literally “Completing Clausewitz”, but published in English as Battling to the End), Girard follows up on the work of Carl von Clausewitz, who wrote the seminal On War at the close of the Napoleonic era. Clausewitz’s principal idea was that the “rules of war” that armies and nations once followed had gone by the wayside and that total war among societies, where participants and targets were unlimited, would likely be the new paradigm going forward in history. Girard notes that Clausewitz’s thesis had proven correct over the subsequent 200 years, exemplified best by World War II, but now culminating in global terrorism and the reactions to it. He also noted that in making this transition, war had ceased to become an effective means of maintaining order, but instead portended the possibility of violence that only begets more violence in a futile attempt to restore order.
In other words, Morris’s thesis of war creating unity and having unintended positive outcomes may have come to an end with the implementation of modern industrial societies and “total war”. As Morris himself theorizes in the video, war may have “put itself out of business” as a useful tool, due to the the only margin of safety may be in the fact that the United States can currently dominate the scene and squelch any violent rivals, as the British were able to do prior to World War I.
Now considering the view briefly through the Prospecting Lens, we do not see a lot more, but it does warn us about becoming too enamored with attractive narratives, such as Morris has proposed, lest we suffer from The Narrative Fallacy, The Hindsight Illusion or Trusting Expert Intuition. Thus, while the theses of Ian Morris present much to ponder and dispel certain popular delusions, we might be a little wary of attempting to predict the future based on these intriguing descriptions of the past.
I have always been curious about the way the world works and the most elegant ideas for describing and explaining it. I think I have found three of them.
I was very fond of James Burke's Connections series that explored interesting intersections between ideas, and hope to create some of that magic here.